"With this body and capacity you transform the ordinary and make it sacred... Through this cause and condition you pick up dirt and turn it into gold." ~ Dogen, 13th century zen monk
Dear Aspiring Yoga Teacher,
If you are reading this letter, there is much you have already learned: the actions and alignments of poses and classes of poses; how to sequence a class for a desired experience; how to choose the right experience for the people in front of you; how to spot knee, hip, shoulder discomfort - and what movements will help.
But the most important part, the part that is not information and may barely be able to be spoken about, the part that you may be able to learn, but only by receiving from someone else who has received the gift from someone before her, is to hold space.
The primary job of the teacher is not to plan or even lead a class, to instruct poses or even breathing techniques. The primary job of a teacher is to hold space for the unfolding of experiences and bear witness to what transpires there.
The holding of space comes before you even begin class, before you greet or check in - which are all critical parts of teaching. But they happen within the space you create.
How do you hold space? Think of a priestess or a goddess encircling a village with her cloak. Think of a school teacher overseeing recess. Think of a mother orchestrating her children and their friends’ activities over a summer. Each one becomes intimately knowledgable of the gifts and challenges of her charges, their likes and dislikes; each one has a list of activities in her back pocket; each one knows that whether a particular session, night or afternoon goes to plan or even feels successful isn’t much to the point, but is interested in the arc of experience. She courts the conditions for each one to encounter something very particular and particularly useful, and yet something neither she or they can even conceive at the beginning.
You hold space by holding each individual in the space in your own consciousness all the way through the time you have together. You may demonstrate, but you are never practicing: your poses are not your own in this session. Your poses are there for the reference and even comfort of those whom you are tending. No one likes to feel scrutinized while they do things that feel unfamiliar, that they’re not sure they can do, while they’re reaching and trying to dance like no one’s watching. You demoing puts your clients more at ease and caters to different learning styles. But your attention is on their poses, their breath, their experience. Their experience becomes a note in your experience when you teach, a note because you have so many to hold - a symphony of experience, of the interplay between comfort and discomfort, striving and resting, holding and being held.
You hold space by backtracking when necessary, circling back around, stopping and breaking things down. You don’t teach a complex move by showing it and then telling people to do it. You teach a complex move by showing each baby step, each component part and two or three different ways of reaching that tiny component and then slowly bringing it all together. You hold space by giving each person a place to be with relation to the complex whole and supporting them in exploring whatever edge they find. You hold space by taking poses, finished things or events and making them processes, circling around them and back into them in myriad ways, speaking at some point about every relevant joint and how it is bent or unbent, engaged or laxed, hugged or unwound, helping each student spiral in to their own near expression or beyond.
You hold space by checking in, in private, in detail with each student before the class starts.You may have everyone introduce themselves at the beginning, but make sure you have introduced yourself and made their acquaintance in a way that makes them the most likely to speak about why they are really there with you. Most people will not honor you with this information in a group setting at first, but will give you glimpses if you ask as if you are truly interested in their experience by greeting them and giving them your full attention if only for 2 minutes.
This will deepen over time, but only if you honor the information they do give you. If one person tells you their shoulder is hurting or feels tired or tight, then include something just for that. When all else fails, include spontaneous movement, allowing each to move in the way their body feels; watch and learn about them. Adjust your class plan and include movements to complement what you see and learn. Then check in with them about what they have told you. Circle back, find out if your response to their need landed in the way you intended. Do this without judgement or expectation - aka, ego.
Do all this with the mind of a scientist, gathering findings from experiments, just as you do in your own practice. You might wake up with a crick in your neck and try three different things in your morning practice before you work it out. It’s all a grand experiment and your job isn’t to fix your clients, but to guide them in an experience of their body and their breath. The only way you can know if you were successful is if you inquire. Ask them how they feel afterwards. They’ll know they are valued and you’ll know more about your craft.
Keep your practice practice: don’t start viewing your practice primarily as a lab for teaching, the relationship is far more synergistic than that. It will, of course, be in part a lab for your teaching. But as you use your practice to heal yourself and explore your own experience, you will learn and experience things that you bring to your teaching at the most unexpected times. Your practice is yours and you must guard it if you are to teach for your clients and not for yourself. Practice for yourself so that you can hold space for your clients to practice for themselves. Your practice is compost: no one veg in the compost is responsible for the nutritious loam that feeds your garden’s growth. But many vegetables and fruits must be churned in, over and over, through weeks and months to make the fertile brew. Many flowers can grow from it - your health, your teaching, your accomplishment and vigor.
Think of yourself as a grand hostess or concierge, there not for your own enjoyment of the terrain, but to derive enjoyment from matching your guests with the just perfect experience of the terrain, the one that will illuminate their experience of their body in a way that feeds them for days and practices to come. This is what holding space is, this is your job as a priestess of the body and breath, this is your privilege.